Leitz Leica IIIf

2009/07/07

Since I used this camera to shoot the photograph in yesterday’s post, I thought it would be appropriate to write about it today; also, this sets up my (intended) post for tomorrow, so here goes. There is already ample information available about the history of the development and production of the various Leica cameras all over the internet, so I do not feel inclined to comment much on this, apart to say that this particular camera is a direct, linear descendant of the original “Barnack” cameras (so named because the original Leica was designed by a man named Oscar Barnack). Being from the earlier line of cameras, this camera uses the earlier threaded lenses, commonly called “screwmount” lenses. Below is a photo of the actual camera and the various lenses I own for it:

LeicaIIIf

The Leica series of cameras were among the first cameras designed as “system” cameras, meaning that along with the camera itself, Leitz also designed a series of lenses and accessories that could be used in conjunction with the camera. Chief among the features of these systems are the interchangeable lenses that share a common mount on the camera, allowing for simple swapping between them as the situation warrants. While we often take this for granted today, with interchangeable lens SLRs or zoom lenses, at the time that the Leica was first produced, the vast majority of cameras had a single, fixed lens; indeed, the first Leica models also had a fixed, collapsible lens – later models introduced the interchangeable lenses. Leicas were not the first to use coupled rangefinders (again, the original Leica models did not have this feature), but they were among the first to incorporate a coupled rangefinder that could work with multiple lenses. Perhaps the most substantial contribution to the photographic world made by the Leica cameras was that they were the first compact cameras that used 35mm film. [1]

As for using the camera, obviously, one of the first useful aspects are the interchangeable lenses; Leitz produced many varieties of lenses, often with multiple variants for each focal length. Swapping lenses is a bit unorthodox for those of us familiar with the bayonet mounts now standard on nearly all major cameras that use interchangeable lenses; rather than an interlocking mechanism, the lenses are literally screwed onto the camera, being attached by a threaded component that mates with a receptor on the camera body. The rangefinder mechanism interface is actually both simple and quite ingenious: it involves a tab on the back of the lens that rotates as the lens focus mechanism is turned, and this tab interfaces with a lever inside the camera body that moves the rangefinder mechanisms back and forth. The rangefinder mechanism itself uses separate viewfinder and rangefinder windows, so one focuses the image using the rangefinder viewport, and composes the photo using another viewport. On the front of the camera, one can see the two different viewing systems on the housing above the lens; the round windows are part of the rangefinder mechanism, while the square window is the viewfinder window. Since the viewing and focusing windows are not shared, the rangefinder window provides a magnified view (I believe it is 1.5x, or roughly thereabouts), which can be useful in critical focusing situations, since smaller details will be larger than they would otherwise appear in such a small viewport. As with other non-SLR cameras, this camera is also quite a bit smaller than most SLRs, even the modern ones; this is primarily due to the lack of a reflex mirror in the former; as such, the camera is a bit more portable than a modern SLR, though it is likely to be substantially heavier (the camera itself has a fully metal body, as do the lenses; most modern SLRs incorporate substantial amounts of lighter plastics and other composite materials). The shutter curtains are made of blackened fabric, so they are not heavy; consequently, the shutter operation for this camera is substantially quieter than most SLRs, and even other rangefinder cameras that used metal shutter curtains. This may actually be a little disconcerting, if you are expecting to hear a noticeable “click” when the shutter moves, but it can be advantageous when you are trying to be unobtrusive. Optically, the lenses are also quite good, though this is not unexpected with Leitz optics, in general. Focusing the short focal length lenses is achieved by using a knob at the base of the lens that turns a ring at the base of the lenses; the knob also has a “lock” at the infinity setting, though this is primarily used to lock the lens mechanism in place while mounting or removing a lens from the camera body. Unlike most contemporary cameras, the black portions of early Leicas were not leather, but a thin layer of vulcanized rubber (commonly referred to as vulcanite). This had the effect of providing a fairly durable gripping surface that keeps its texture quite well, and is not as prone to scratches as leather would be under similar circumstances.

As with most cameras, there are, of course, some downsides to using this camera. Regarding the lens mounting system, it is fairly unorthodox to those of use familiar with bayonet mounts, but with practice, it is not too difficult. Mounting the lenses takes a few rotations of the lens to fully attach it, so it is a little more time consuming than modern bayonet mount lenses; the connector threads are quite robust, however, so there is little threat of stripping the threads, unless, of course, you apply undue pressure to force the lens into position (hint: if the lens is not turning freely in the camera body as you’re trying to attach it, you’re not doing it right; fully remove the lens, and try again). While the magnified image in the rangefinder viewport is a definite advantage, the fact that the rangefinder and viewfinder windows are separate entities means that focusing and composing an image is a little less efficient than one might like, particularly if one is used to working with SLRs, where focusing and composition take place in the same viewport. The viewfinder window, meanwhile, is also fairly small, meaning that composing an image is somewhat harder than doing so with a modern SLR. The lens focusing mechanism for shorter focal-length lenses is also a little unorthodox, particularly if one is used to using a focusing ring on a modern SLR lens; it takes some getting used to, and I personally do not feel that it is superior to the focus ring on a modern SLR lens, but eventually, you’ll get the hang of it. One of the most frustrating aspects of the camera, however, is loading film; unlike modern SLRs (or even other contemporary cameras, for that matter), to load film into this camera, one must remove the baseplate of the camera, slide out the take-up spool, insert the film leader into the take-up spool, then slide both the take-up spool and the film canister into the camera body – through the bottom of the camera, and while effectively blind. Unlike modern SLRs, the back of the camera is completely non-removable, so there is no way to see what you’re doing as you’re sliding the film into the camera. Additionally, modern film leaders do not work well with the Leica’s internal workings; I lost two rolls of film to loading incidents. I eventually noticed that the baseplate has a diagram that indicates how the film leader needs to be cut to fit into the camera properly, but this, to me, is a bit of an annoyance; while I like using the camera, I do not particularly enjoy having to custom modify every roll of film I load into this camera – this is of particular concern if you’re going to be shooting multiple rolls in a given outing, as you’ll need to modify each roll prior to heading out, or bring along a pair of scissors to modify each roll in the field. In either case, it is an annoyance that I would rather do without. Also, as with most cameras of its time, this camera does not have a built-in light meter, so you’ll have to provide a separate meter (or memorize an exposure table); generally, this negates the size advantage this camera enjoys over a more modern SLR, as the latter have light meters built into their bodies. Finally, the vulcanite coating may also cause some trouble, though this is mostly a cosmetic issue; vulcanized rubber, while generally quite durable, will eventually deteriorate under the right (wrong) circumstances. When this happens, the coating will quite literally crumble into dust, and unlike a leather coating, one cannot simply acquire a new sheet of vulcanite and re-glue it to the body; the vulcanite coating was literally baked onto the surface of the camera body, so it cannot be re-applied, short of disassembling the camera, and replicating the process. Of course, one could always replace the deteriorated vulcanite with sheet leather (or some similar material), though this would be less “authentic.”

All of this aside, I do, indeed, enjoy using this camera, almost as much as I enjoy using my SLRs. It does take a little more time to compose and focus each image as I shoot them, but in general, the time difference is not so noticeable as to be detrimental. I generally do not shoot “action” photographs, so I do not need a camera with a fast reaction time. Unlike most of the other older cameras I own, this one is nearly as versatile as the modern SLRs I own, so it is an acceptable substitute, should I feel the urge to use it instead of one of the SLRs. And, as I have mentioned with the other older cameras I own, I do enjoy getting results from a camera that is many decades old. Below is another example of the results one can get while using this camera (and yes, I noticed that I missed a few dust spots; don’t bother contacting me just to point that out…I already know).

Stella001

If you’re interested in seeing additional examples of shots I took with this camera, see the set on my Flickr site. [2] I also have a set devoted to the operation of this camera, so if you are interested in using one yourself, feel free to check it out; [3] please feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding the operation guide. Enjoy.

Notes:

[1]: Note that the Leicas were not the first cameras to use 35mm film, they were the first to do so in a compact body. One such earlier camera that I know of used a large film magazine that contained enough film for 200 shots; the camera itself was, naturally, much larger than the Leica.

[2]: Flickr set with additional photos available here.

[3]: Flickr set with operation instructions available here.

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